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October 6, 1999


Courses That Teach How to Learn Online

A free class offered through the Web site of Pennsylvania State University is known formally as World Campus 101. But a more descriptive title might be: How to Take a Course Online.

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The purpose of the self-paced class is twofold: to make students aware of how an electronic class differs from the chalk-and-blackboard variety and to teach them a set of basic Internet skills to prepare for the endeavor.

"This is still a very new field for most people," said Gary E. Miller, associate vice president for distance education at Penn State, which launched the site in March. "Your average student who needs an education probably has no idea what they are getting into." With the course, he said, "We are giving them an orientation to this learning environment online."

Penn State is not the only institution that has decided students need some preparation before plunging into courses and programs delivered wholly or in large part over the Internet. Officials at a number of colleges and universities that offer online classes believe that Internet-based pedagogy is so different from the traditional classroom variety that students require a lesson in how to learn online before they begin their virtual courses of instruction.

"Particularly the schools that have some experience in online teaching are learning that this -- providing some level of orientation that can prepare students to succeed in online learning -- is a necessary thing to do," said A. Frank Mayadas, a program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has funded a number of Internet education projects at colleges and universities over the last seven years. "The drop-out rates are too high when the students are not prepared. They just throw up their hands."

Before their classes begin, students enrolled in the online courses offered by the New School University in New York City, for example, are required to log on to the school's Web site and take a week-long online orientation. If they stick with the program, they learn skills like how to post comments in the virtual student lounge to how to insert a hypertext link in documents. "We don't want them to skip this," said Stephen J. Anspacher, associate provost for distance learning at the New School, adding, "They are used to raising their hands if they want to say something in class. Well, that doesn't work in this environment."

Some program draw adults who may have little familiarity with computers.

Those who hope to earn a special associate's degree in telecommunications from Pace University are required to take a two-week online class, for which they earn one credit, on such basics as how to download files and how to conduct an effective search on the Internet. The program, which is aimed at telephone company employees who want to learn to become network technicians, draws adults who may have little familiarity with computers, according to David A. Sachs, assistant dean of the school of computer science and information systems at Pace. One objective of the class is make sure the students have mastered the technology before classes begin, so they will not be flustered by glitches once the course is underway.

Officials at other programs, meanwhile, have decided that the Internet alone is not enough to teach the ropes to would-be online learners, and have opted for traditional classes instead. Those who enroll in an Internet-based masters degree program in information studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee, for example, are required to attend a three-day session on campus during which they are taught the ins and outs of the technology they will rely on during their course of study.

"There's a social perspective, too: to come face-to-face with faculty and staff they will be working with and to make peer contact," said Alice R. Robbin, assistant professor in the school of information studies.

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Another human element many of the preparatory programs try to deal with is whether students, regardless of the technology involved, have the personal and intellectual skills to complete a distance learning course.

On the home page for his online course in macroeconomics, Charles L. Sicotte, a professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., links to a paper called "What Makes a Successful Online Student?" Prepared by the University of Illinois Online Network, the paper notes that students need a lot of self-motivation to keep up with online coursework. They also need to have good writing skills, because many of the courses depend on virtual class participation -- that is, frequent postings to discussions that take place on online bulletin boards.

In addition, Sicotte links to two online self-assessment quizzes that have been put up by other universities for students to test themselves and get a rough idea of whether online learning would work for them.

Sicotte believes that online learning requires more discipline, better writing skills and better ability to evaluate information than traditional classes and he wants to make sure prospective students realize this before they sign up for his class.

"I thought it was critical that students knew up front what they are getting into," he said.

The EDUCATION column is published weekly, on Wednesdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

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